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Ohio woman files five bogus Arkansas storm reports, including one about a tornado

by Bill Bowden | April 20, 2022 at 6:50 a.m.
File photo

As severe storms moved through Arkansas on the night of April 11, someone in another state filed five "maliciously false" Arkansas storm reports, a meteorologist said.

One of those reports -- that a large tornado was heading toward Jacksonville and Cabot -- contributed to the National Weather Service's decision to upgrade a tornado warning to a tornado emergency.

"How much that one report played into that decision, I can't say for sure," said Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist with the Weather Service in North Little Rock.

"We also had a report of an emergency manager saying there was significant damage to homes behind that storm. The significant damage to homes wasn't from a tornado. It was from hail. Large hail was being blown at 60 and 70 miles per hour and blowing the roofs off homes."

Cavanaugh said the false Arkansas storm reports came from a woman in Cleveland, Ohio. He said the woman knew enough about weather to report things that looked plausible to meteorologists.

"It has real life repercussions," said Cavanaugh. "In this case it did not result in somebody getting hurt, which is great. But when you get too many of these false reports, it results in the degradation of our warnings. We have to make a warning decision in seconds."

Cavanaugh said the woman apparently hacked into Spotter Network, a software platform used by storm chasers. Spotter Network reports are sent directly to NWS chat, a platform that allows meteorologists at the Weather Service to communicate with broadcast media, emergency workers and firefighters to get information before issuing a warning.

Cavanaugh said Weather Service employees don't see the name of the person who files the report with Spotter Network, and the platform allows people to put in their own latitude and longitude. Obviously, the woman in Ohio put in Arkansas coordinates instead.

"The fact that their software allows people to falsify their latitude and longitude is a vulnerability," said Cavanaugh. "That's not their intention, of course."

Cavanaugh said the Spotter Network reports always come with the word "unverified."

"But it's done that for 16 years," he said. "When Spotter Network reports have been coming in and 99% of the time they're made in good faith, you build a trust in that vehicle."

Cavanaugh said reports from storm spotters are sometimes wrong, but not "maliciously false" as they were in this case.

John Wetter, the president of Spotter Network, didn't respond to an email sent on Tuesday.

Cavanaugh said Wetter didn't respond because he was probably swamped.

"I think this event has caused national scrutiny on Spotter Network," said Cavanaugh.

He said the same woman in Ohio filed three false reports with the National Weather Service in Tulsa on April 11. The warning coordination meteorologist in Tulsa was off work on Tuesday and unavailable for comment. The Tulsa office covers the weather in seven counties in Northwest Arkansas.

"Spotter Network has a very clean history of good reports being sent via its software, but it only takes one bad report to cause a loss of trust in the community and the warning system," said Cavanaugh. "It has become harder for us at the National Weather Service to trust anything coming from Spotter Network now that we're aware of this vulnerability. That's not fair to Spotter Network. They didn't maliciously send out a bad report, but somebody used their network to send out a bad report."

He said the Spotter Network program could be changed to rely on a global positioning system, but storm chasers sometimes need to put in different coordinates to let people know where a tornado is located.

Alex Libby, weekend meteorologist with KARK television in Little Rock, said they rely heavily on the National Weather Service warnings to convey useful information to the public.

"We covered it as a serious situation, as a tornado emergency," he said. But shortly afterwards, it was downgraded to a tornado warning again.

Cavanaugh said Spotter Network figured out there was a problem with this Ohio reporter a couple of hours after the storms moved through Arkansas that night.

Cavanaugh said Spotter Network tracked the Cleveland woman's internet protocol address. When contacted, she said someone had hacked her phone and filed the false reports.

"Spotter Network asked for proof, but she didn't comply, so they banned her account," said Cavanaugh.

He said it's a federal crime to make false reports to the National Weather Service. But it would be difficult to get access to data on her phone without her cooperation. And cellphone companies can be reluctant to provide such information.

"To my knowledge nobody has contacted the FBI about this and I don't think anybody is going to," said Cavanaugh. "We feel it would probably be a waste of the FBI's time. The most they could do is confiscate her phone. ... At this time, we don't have any direct interest in trying to prosecute her."

He said the Weather Service needs more storm spotters reporting in good faith. That will make erroneous reports more evident.

Print Headline: Storm reports in state falsified


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